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IT MIGHT NOT have qualified as the worst job in Seattle at the time. The hours were flexible, heavy lifting was not required, and there were no insufferably long meetings to attend. But you have to excuse Mike James for having more than a few why-me moments.

Especially given that the whole thing was supposed to be one big Super Bowl of International Feel-Goodism.

Presidents of each of Seattle’s 21 sister-city associations will tell you their jobs are mostly about public niceties: exposing Northwesterners to the fascinating cultures of other cities around the globe and fostering lifelong personal connections. It’s been a successful city program for six decades, and keeps going strong against considerable odds.

But there’s no official handbook, and if there were, it likely would contain little advice about what to do when it all goes terribly wrong. Like when high authorities in your sister city of Perugia, in Italy’s Umbria region, brand one of Seattle’s daughters — a hapless exchange student — as a satanic, sex-obsessed “she-devil” who helped slaughter her own roommate, apparently just for fun.

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OK, then. Scusami! A glass of spicy Sagrantino, anyone?

Clearly, there’s no bad timing like Seattle-Perugia Sister City Bad Timing (patent pending). The 2007 arrest of Amanda Knox came smack dab in the middle of plans to unveil the Seattle-Perugia Sister City Association’s crowning achievement, Northwest sculptor Marvin Oliver’s spectacular “Sister Orca,” in a park near Perugia’s MiniMetro Station.

Incendiary global press leading up to the trial and Knox’s initial conviction put James, the likable, retired KING-TV anchorman, in the sort of crisis-management mode nobody in the world of sister cities signs up for. Normally, the job’s most pressing public duties involve
clinking glasses with the mayor of Perugia at the Seattle International Film Festival.

“It’s been a bit of a shadow,” says James, employing an intentional understatement as he reflects on the seeming never-ending public-relations nightmare of the Knox imbroglio. It’s a recurring one; the scandal has dragged on through an appeal, overturned conviction and, recently, an all-new trial ending in re-conviction.

But during his eight-year tenure as association president, which ended late last year, James says the association did a lot of positive things, focusing on “cultural kinds of exchanges.”

Still, as a newsman, James knew the score. “It was more than just juggling friendships,” he says. “It was trying to keep the friendship going — separating the trial from the friendship.”

Quietly, James and others have used sister-city connections to try to diffuse tensions between the two populations while aiding Knox’s family during long stays in Italy as the legal process drags on.

Publicly, the committee plugged away at what a sister-city group does — facilitating, for example, the recent display of Umbrian ceramic art at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. It seemed to work. Despite the growing estrangement from Perugia, which spilled over into some angry missives to James, the city and local media, nobody — at least not yet — has shown up to demand that Seattle send its most controversial sister city off to a foster home.

But the bad-luck string proved remarkably persistent. After the December 2009 guilty verdict, Perugians danced in the streets while Seattleites steamed. The verdict came just a day after the Seattle Parks Department announced the naming of “Perugia Park,” a new city pocket park on Capitol Hill. It was supposed to be the civic kiss blown back to Perugia for its spectacular park containing “Sister Orca.”

But Mayor Mike McGinn’s incoming administration swiftly put the brakes on the name. The park now bears the colorful moniker “Summit Slope Park,” and James has no idea if the “Perugia” name will ever grace a Seattle gathering place, thanks to those wacky Italian judges.

The two cities did have a successful 20th-anniversary celebration this past summer. And ironically, James says, “we’ve had our best five or six years” as a sister-city organization since the Knox mess began. “Because we had to.”

EVERY DAY, a lot is going on within the city’s 21 sister-city groups. But very little of it makes headlines in the New York Post, let alone The Seattle Times.

The volunteer directors of the city’s 20 other sister-city associations would love some of the same news punch that Seattle-Perugia has gotten — without, of course, the murder-allegations part. But in a backhanded way, the debacle has focused new attention on Seattle’s international tentacles.

These reach fairly deep into city history. President Dwight Eisenhower created the U.S. sister city program in 1956 during the first roar of the Cold War, when people-to-people diplomacy seemed not just a nicety but perhaps the best means to prevent Armageddon. The notion: It’s a lot harder to blow up people you know by name.

Seattle was quick to respond. Its first sister-city relationship — still one of its strongest — was formed with Kobe, Japan, the very next year. The city also was ahead of the game in reaching out to the former Soviet Union. The Tashkent, Uzbekistan, committee was formed in 1973, and still is active. In general, the sister-city concept seemed a natural fit for a city which, since its inception, had reached out to embrace the world.

Still, it was a decade before the second sister, Bergen, Norway, came on board. The rest of Seattle’s sister arrangements occurred sporadically, usually not so much because expatriates were pushing it but because some enthusiastic Seattle resident had a favorite spot on the globe.

The 1970s also brought Beer Sheva, Israel, and Mazatlan, Mexico. In the 1980s came Christchurch, New Zealand; Chongqing, China; Limbe, Cameroon; Nantes, France; Mombasa, Kenya; Galway, Ireland; Daejon, Korea, and Reykjavik, Iceland. Another boomlet in the 1990s saw the addition of Cebu, Philippines; Gdynia, Poland; Kaohsiung, Taiwan; Pecs, Hungary; Sihanoukville, Cambodia; Haiphong, Vietnam; Surabaya, Indonesia, and Perugia.

All those agreements, sucking up increasing amounts of city staff time, led City Council members to impose a moratorium on new cities in the late 1990s.

There was concern about “losing quality for quantity,” says Mike Peters, a former Paralympic soccer player who now spends about half his time administering the programs as the city’s director of intergovernmental relations.

The moratorium hasn’t sat well with everyone, Peters notes. Pressure has grown to fill obvious “holes” in the sister-city map. Seattle, for example, has no sister city in Central or South America (or, curiously, in Canada, raising the possibility that sisters of a common mother might seem a bit too . . . familiar). And, as it turns out, people really like us: A fair number of potential sister suitors have long been calling.

As a result, the city’s freeze — and you are reading this here first — appears to be showing signs of melting. New Mayor Ed Murray is viewed as an enthusiastic advocate. And council members, along with the sister-city community, have been discussing ideas, perhaps finding a way to replace committees that have lost their mojo.

THAT, OF COURSE, raises the sticky issue of protocol. How does one dump a sister city for whom interest has waned? Do we just send a trusted longtime global companion a letter, saying in effect, “We’re just not that into you anymore”?

Not an option. In the world of people-to-people diplomacy, ditching a sister city would be gauche. So a clever workaround is being mulled: Rather than dissolve an inactive city committee — nobody’s shouting out names, but “Mazatlan” keeps being whispered — the city might establish a new category of “sister cities emeritus,” recognizing the connection but keeping it in name only. It’s tidy, outwardly polite — even a tad passive-aggressive, in that classic Seattle way.

This new freedom might allow the city to finally turn its eyes south to add a city in, say, Brazil, which is about to take global center stage by hosting soccer’s World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. It might inject some new blood into a sister-city scene which, while still considered one of the better programs in the country, has faded from public attention.

Without some turnover, maintaining momentum for the programs is difficult. Part of the challenge is structural. In many cases, existing sister-city relationships seem one-sided, with more tangible signs of the friendships in the foreign cities than here. One reason: Sister-city groups abroad usually are more directly connected to their governments, which can construct a “Seattle Park” or other landmark with little quibbling. Here, of course, those actions are stymied not just by the legendary Seattle Process but by limits on available funds. State constitutional restrictions on “gifts” of public money for activities such as hosting foreign delegations also come into play.

Seattle’s committees are volunteer-run, independent nonprofits whose city support is limited to $2,000 a year. Additional money is raised privately. Partly because of those limitations, Seattle tries to put more government oomph in its relationships by assigning several cities to each City Council member. They sometimes accompany group members on foreign trips. Jean Godden, for example, last year led a city delegation to Tashkent, celebrating the group’s 40th anniversary. She came home with assorted mementos — and a new understanding of a city struggling to find its way in democratic governance after decades of Soviet rule.

The point: Even with the lid lifted, numbers of sister-city programs will remain limited by the council’s ability to juggle those duties, Peters believes.

IF WE BUILD more of these personal bridges, what will cross them? More of what we have already, but often fail to appreciate.

Some signs of the city’s more-active pacts are all around us. The Kobe Bell at Seattle Center and blooming cherry trees at numerous locales are the most visible symbols of the Kobe relationship. But the real value in this friendship, and the others, lies in less-visible human connections, says Kobe Association President Karin Zaugg Black, one of the city’s most enthusiastic internationalists.

“I feel so connected to the people in that city,” says Zaugg Black, who lived in Kobe during its horrific 1995 earthquake, speaks fluent Japanese and German, and has almost as many close personal connections there as she does here. The Kobe pact has been around so long that its current leaders are focusing on preserving its rich history as founding members pass away.

The connection, fostered over the decades with youth exchanges through the YMCA, Seattle schools, the Port of Seattle, the Seattle Yacht Club, local service clubs and countless other groups, was a model for international friendship in the uncertain postwar era. It remains one today. The cities exchange jazz musicians, teachers, baseball fans (including the Mariner Moose), trees and plants, and other niceties too numerous to list.

Most poignant, however, is the exchange both in aid, concern and emergency-preparation plans that grew out of Seattle’s response to Kobe’s devastating earthquake. That crisis launched cooperative programs among local governments, universities and other agencies that remain strongly in place, and were activated anew after the Japanese tsunami two years ago.

Similar ties have strengthened the relationship between Seattle and Christchurch, says committee President Rachel Jacobsen, a Wellington native, Seattle schoolteacher and wife of former State Sen. Ken Jacobsen.

That city and Seattle have done the usual friendly exchanges: Seattle has received New Zealand plants and trees at the Washington Park Arboretum, parrots at the Woodland Park Zoo, and Maori art and cultural exhibits at the Burke Museum and other local places. But reaching out in times of crisis creates a far deeper bond.

“There’s been a lot of back-and-forth,” Jacobsen says, especially regarding crisis management since the 2011 earthquake that killed nearly 200 people. A new emergency-response vehicle that plies the streets of Christchurch bears Seattle’s civic logo. It’s the sort of gesture that people tend not to forget.

ALL OF THIS provides an answer to an obvious question about the sister-city structure itself: Is it a quaint, Cold War artifact, likely to be supplanted by modern global-connection innovations, specifically social media? Not likely, active members insist. Social media have simply proved wonderful tools for boosting friendships already set up by sister cities. An ongoing “virtual exchange” between high-school students in West Seattle and Christchurch, for example, would be prohibitively expensive if it were an actual one.

A greater challenge to the friendships’ long-term futures, leaders agree, is continuity.

“It’s all volunteer stuff,” Jacobsen notes. “Things change as people who are heavily involved pass on; there’s a question of succession.”

Some groups have fallen into near inactivity for that very reason. Only infusions of fresh blood will save them from “emeritus status” oblivion.

Zaugg Black is taking nothing for granted.

“I’m constantly trying to get new people involved, through stuff that they love” that might have a Japanese connection, she says. “We create our programs with a specific, younger-person component in mind so we can get them hooked on the grass-roots exchanges.”

Time will tell if it will provide enough fuel to keep the sister-cities fires burning. Seattle officials are tossing around other, smallish ideas, such as a prominent signpost with arms pointing to all the cities, or a “passport” that Seattle residents can fill out by visiting the city’s landmarks in their hometown.

But oddly the Knox/Perugia tumult has been the biggest spark in sister-city interest in many years.

James hopes the unpleasantness his committee has faced teaches counterpart groups to do what his did amid the crisis: Look beyond the ceremonial trappings and exchanges of gifts. Zero in on what’s of lasting value — the personal relationships.

In the end, he says, “It’s about making friendships and exchanging ideas.”

And once in a while, a well-placed mi dispiace.

Ron Judd is a Pacific NW magazine staff writer.